Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.com
It’s hard not to get a bit excited about the two Notre Dame receiving threats who have emerged this spring to take the place of the Will Fuller-Chris Brown pairing that finished first and second in receptions in 2015.
Torii Hunter Jr. was a Z/slot/underneath receiver last year who did most of his work catching the football in front of linebackers and slicing his way through them for extra yardage.
Hunter has been moved to the X – the position Fuller played – and although he likely cannot duplicate Fuller’s downfield prowess, he sure did a spot-on impression during Saturday’s practice session in Loftus Sports Center on Meyo Field.
Hunter repeatedly got behind the Irish secondary, which, admittedly, is an indictment on the current unsteady state of the back end of the Notre Dame defense. But Hunter looks good and he’s catching everything in the 574 area code.
Honestly, especially coming off a pretty bad broken leg prior to his freshman year at Notre Dame, it wasn’t believed that Hunter would attain burner status. Well, he ran a 4.43 during winter conditioning and he ran by a bunch of 4.4-something guys Saturday, from start to finish, over and over again.
The move of Alizé Jones to W in the absence of Corey Robinson (concussion) and Equanimeous St. Brown (shoulder) is a great decision, even if/when those two are healthy. The Irish can line Jones up anywhere, quite frankly, because he is a tight end with wide receiver skills. In fact, he’s probably more wide receiver than tight end.
Brian Kelly made a great statement following Saturday’s practice, which makes good use of Jones’ skills. You can’t use Jones in a three-man rotation at tight end (Y). He has to be on the field on a full-time basis. They can rotate Durham Smythe and Nic Weishar (and occasionally Jacob Matuska) at tight end. Jones needs to play most of the time. Jones has size, he has competitive desire and he can win most jump-ball battles. He’s a star in the making.
There’s your one-two receiving punch for 2016.
THE BARS/BIVIN EXCHANGEMatt Cashore / Irishillustrated.com
Another good idea by the Irish coaching staff, namely, offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, was to flip-flop Alex Bars and Hunter Bivin when what they saw of Bivin at tackle didn’t quite satisfy.
Bivin played left tackle behind Ronnie Stanley last year, which means he barely saw the field behind Notre Dame’s soon-to-be first-round draft choice. Mike McGlinchey’s move from right to left tackle made perfect sense. Right tackle would be an easier fit for Bivin.
But at 6-foot-6, 320 pounds, Bars just makes more sense. He’s a bigger body, to be sure, but he’s also more agile, lighter on his feet, and shows natural instincts in pass pro.
Bars is an athlete who happens to be as big as a house. Love his burst after an initial punch with a pass rusher. He has the footwork and shows a real awareness to match his opponent when the pass rusher makes his second surge following that initial thrust.
There remain questions with Bivin at guard, questions pertaining to him and potential challengers for the position. Colin McGovern looks like an ideal sixth man who can provide spot duty. Tristen Hoge is competing at center and doesn’t have a lot of bulk. Walk-on Logan Plantz was getting No. 2 reps at right guard Saturday. Trevor Ruhland is working at left guard and also doesn’t have a lot of bulk.
The only way the right guard position changes is if a freshman comes in (tackles Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg, guard Parker Boudreaux) this summer and alters the landscape by either making a push at guard or establishing a foothold at tackle, and thus, pushing Bars back to guard, which seems unlikely at this point.
The flip-flop of Bars and Bivin doesn’t necessarily solve the right guard dilemma, but the Irish have two long, powerful, athletic tackles now in McGlinchey and Bars, which bodes well for the passing game.
DEFENSIVE TACKLE CONCERNSMatt Cashore / Irishillustrated.com
Sheldon Day is gone. No really. He’s gone on to prepare for his career in the NFL. He’s not coming back to Notre Dame.
Just wanted to make that clear since he’s been such a mainstay for the Irish at defensive tackle/three-technique as he developed into a disruptive force for the Irish from 2013-15.
It’s great to have a fairly experienced young player with length like Jerry Tillery moving from nose to defensive tackle. Normal progression for this talented 6-foot-6 ½, 310-pounder would dictate that he develops into a real quality player.
But you’d like to see it flashed more often than it is. Tillery just blends into the pack on the practice field. He doesn’t show much emotion or energy. His body language says defensive line position drills are drudgery, which they are, but that’s not the point.
Projections of star potential are natural because he’s blessed with a whole bunch of tools. But it’s an evaluation based on potential, not something that’s been seen by eyes on a consistent basis.
Behind him is a greater concern. Sophomores Elijah Taylor and Micah Dew-Treadway are the backups to Tillery, and neither has the star power of Tillery, although there’s some athleticism in Dew-Treadway’s 6-foot-4, 300-pound frame.
The key with Tillery is a consistent effort, which was one of two great Sheldon Day traits, along with his quickness off the snap.
Perhaps early-entry freshman Khalid Kareem, who’s working at the big end position behind Isaac Rochell and Jonathan Bonner this spring, can slide to tackle in the fall after he’s had a full summer of strength and conditioning. But even then, he’s still a freshman.
Be wary of this position because as spring ends, it is not a strength by any means at a very critical position manned brilliantly by Day in recent years.
• Shaun Crawford is the starting left cornerback opposite Cole Luke. When the Irish go to nickel, Crawford will slide to that position with another cornerback – Nick Coleman, Devin Butler or Ashton White with Nick Watkins recovering from a broken arm – moving into the lineup. (There’s some freshman help coming in Julian Love, Troy Pride Jr., and Donte’ Vaughn.)
The concern is keeping the 5-foot-8 ½, 180-pound Crawford healthy. He’s coming off an ACL and he is, make no mistake about it, small.
But he’s a gamer, he’s a brilliant one-on-on defender and he was around the ball in the running game Saturday as well. As Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson suggested, Crawford is probably Notre Dame’s best cornerback right now.
• Quenton Nelson is a total beast at left guard. Let’s hope the Irish can have him for 2016-17. He has eligibility through ’18 but can leave after ’16. Guards aren’t first-round draft picks very often; Nelson will be worthy, whenever he decides to go.
• Why not Chris Finke? The 5-foot-9 ½, 175-pounder from the same high school (Archbishop Alter in Kettering, Ohio) as Malik Zaire has been getting plenty of work at the Z position behind unproven Corey Holmes.
With Amir Carlisle gone, Torii Hunter Jr. moved to X, C.J. Sanders injured and no sight of Demetris Robertson, Finke is a frequent target this spring.
Maybe a quality athlete like Chase Claypool will slot inside. Maybe Kevin Stepherson, who shows downfield ability at the X, is a candidate. Maybe Holmes will just take command of the position and render the point moot.
But until some of those questions are answered, there’s no reason why the speedy walk-on Z can’t be an underneath receiver who beats linebackers in short-space coverage.
• As a box safety, Drue Tranquill is a real weapon. The further away from the football he gets, the less he offers. Freshman Devin Studstill is the starter at free safety ahead of Max Redfield, who has yet to find any semblance of consistency. It was not a great Saturday on the practice field for sixth-year senior Avery Sebastian or freshman Spencer Perry.
The Irish need freshmen Jalen Elliott, D.J. Morgan and Donte’ Vaughn (also a cornerback) to get in the mix and create more competition. This remains a significant concern on the Irish defense.
• Isaac Rochell is in tremendous physical condition, streamlined and equipped with more moves/suddenness in the pass rush. He is the rock upon which this defensive line will be built.
• Agreed that Nyles Morgan looks really good at Mike linebacker. But it’s only natural to have doubts that all of a sudden, it makes complete and total sense to him when he couldn’t get on the field ahead of Joe Schmidt just a few months ago.
Brian Kelly said Morgan has gone under the radar because he’s handled things so well this spring. The less said the better, but the kid looked like the real deal Saturday.
• Better quarterback Saturday: DeShone Kizer or Malik Zaire? Kizer. More consistent touch, better accuracy, better going through progressions.